Helms Never Changed His Views On The Civil Rights Act

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Jesse Helms forever changed North Carolina politics and the conservative movement. The former senator did it without ever changing much about himself.

There is perhaps no better example of Helms' unwavering commitment to his beliefs than on the issue of race. Helms was a staunch opponent of the nation's civil rights movement, where he joined the likes of Alabama Gov. George Wallace and South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond in a fight to keep outsiders from meddling in what he called "the Southern way of life."

But those two giants of Southern politics would come to temper their views on race and civil rights, while Helms never did. He died Friday at age 86, having never seen any need to apologize or deviate from his views.

"I can't think of many other examples of major opponents of the civil rights movement that didn't modify their view on civil rights," said William Link, a professor at the University of Florida and a Helms biographer. "He was very much a man of the times and his generation ... of North Carolina whites (who) grew up with segregation."

Helms' take-no-prisoners brand of politics, combined with a strict stubbornness on social issues and a fiery desire to defeat Communism, endeared him to conservatives. His defiance of the establishment, combined with a political machine that refined the art of direct-mail fundraising, helped Helms transform North Carolina into a two-party state and turn the South into a Republican stronghold.

His greatest political accomplishment came in a year when his name didn't even appear on the ballot. Helms' decision to back Ronald Reagan's upstart bid against President Gerald Ford in 1976 led the struggling California governor to an upset win in the North Carolina primary, setting the stage for his eventual White House win four years later.

"In one sense, the role that Jesse played in that one primary 32 years ago was key to electing a president - which was key to Reagan, which was key to America winning the Cold War," said Carter Wrenn, a longtime political operative in the Helms machine.

Throughout his five terms in the Senate, Helms took offense at accusations he was racist. He spoke often of his good relationships with blacks and pointed to the black members on his staff. He insisted he opposed the Civil Rights Act because he didn't want the federal government intervening in state matters. He considered the civil rights movement to be either corrupt or self-serving, Link said.

"I felt that the citizens of my community, my state and my region of the country were being battered by this new form of bigotry," Helms wrote in his 2005 memoir, "Here's Where I Stand." "I simply could not stay silent in the face of this assault - and I didn't."

For years, he was joined in that fight by Thurmond, Wallace and others. They entered politics a little earlier than Helms, but each professed the same commitment to states rights as the Jim Crow-era of segregation slowly succumbed to court decisions, legislation and changing attitudes about race in the South.

But time and political expediency mellowed their views. After an attempted assassin's bullets left him paralyzed, Wallace was elected governor a fourth time in 1982 with the help of black voters as he shifted to a populist message. Thurmond served in the Senate for 48 years, ultimately becoming the first Southern senator to hire a black aide.

Thurmond also voted to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, a decision to which Helms was bitterly opposed. Helms led an unsuccessful filibuster in 1983, arguing the Senate rushed debate and had not reviewed thoroughly King's purported links to communism. "My decision was based on the facts, not on personality and certainly not on race," Helms wrote in his memoir.

Helms didn't worry much about what others viewed as race-baiting, mostly because every six years he proved he didn't need to change his ways to keep getting elected. He never won more than 55 percent of the vote, but his coalition of Republicans and so-called "Jessecrats" - conservative, white Democrats who voted for the GOP in federal elections - kept sending him back to Washington.

Through his political organization, the Congressional Club, Helms raised millions of dollars to benefit conservative candidates and produced negative television ads. The most famous ran in 1990 during his campaign against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who is black.

The spot showed a white man's hands crumpling a rejection letter from an employer, while a narrator lets the viewer know a racial quota made sure the job went to a minority.

"Helms operated as though African-Americans didn't vote," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "He was unlike other politicians, who tried to expand their original basis of support. Helms never did that."


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